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Understanding the Ascension of the Lord



When Christ’s work becomes our work

By Kevin Scott Fleming | Presbyterians Today

Reprinted from the April/May 2018 issue of Presbyterians Today

The Ascension of the Lord has never been an important event on the Presbyterian church calendar. But perhaps it should be, as there are things we can learn from it.
The story of Jesus ascending into heaven after appearing to his followers in the 40 days after his resurrection does come with two significant challenges. First, as a rule, people do not simply float away into the sky. Just think of the nightmare that would pose for the Transportation Security Administration. Secondly, the story presents a picture of the universe we know not to be true. “Heaven” is not “up” and “hell” is not “down” and we do not live in “the middle.” So a literal reading of the story is not going to be helpful.

But stories of ascensions appear in both sacred and secular writings. Elijah is taken up into the heavens on a chariot of fire. “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him.” Plutarch, the historian, included an ascension story in his history of Rome. What are these stories trying to tell us?

Ascension stories offer us a new and exalted view of the one who ascends. When we say, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, that Jesus “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God,” we are proclaiming that Jesus is now exalted over all — the Lord of heaven and earth who heals the wounds of a broken humanity and breaks down the walls that divide us from each other and from God. The Ascension is a celebration of the church’s first creed: Jesus is Lord.

The Ascension also marks a critical turning point. In both the Gospel of Luke and in Acts, the Ascension marks the passing of Jesus’ message and mission to his disciples. What is to become of his story and work is now in their care and keeping. And the disciples will be able to continue Jesus’ work with the promised gift of the Holy Spirit that comes upon them at Pentecost, which is celebrated 10 days after the Ascension.

For us in the church, Ascension Sunday can be a time when we remind ourselves of the important work to which we have been called. Christ’s work is now our work. Without the Spirit’s empowering presence, our work cannot be faithfully offered. Ascension Sunday, thus, connects us to Pentecost and the gifts for ministry that the Spirit provides.

The Ascension story also includes a rather comical scene. The disciples are standing there, first looking at Jesus ascending and then staring at the clouds. They then hear a voice asking them what they are looking at.

“Uh, the sky.”

“Don’t you think you ought to get on with what Jesus told you to do?”

“Guess so.”

And there is one of the great challenges the church has always faced. Adoration or action. Worship or service. Contemplation or engagement. Let’s be clear. It’s not a choice. All are part of the life of a Christian. They feed each other.

Sometimes, though, we are a bit like those disciples, standing there with our feet on the ground and our heads in the clouds. We get a little distracted. We get a little preoccupied and sidetracked.

But then someone, or something, says, “What are you looking at?” And that is Ascension’s moment of grace. It is a moment when we are invited to reexamine our calling and our discipleship.

So it’s up to us. We can be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good, or we can be about the work of expanding the realm of God.

What are you looking at?

How about a world made new? A world where there’s enough for all. A world where all people are treated justly and with love.

Kevin Scott Fleming is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Evansville, Indiana.

Learn more

The Ascension of the Lord falls on Thursday, May 10, 2018. Churches are invited to observe the Ascension on Sunday, May 13, 2018. For Ascension worship resources, go to

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